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Yoga instructor sets out to decolonize yoga in Germany

Nadine Wojcik
June 21, 2023

June 21 is International Day of Yoga. Sangeeta Lerner aims to draw awareness to yoga’s spiritual roots, as a way of life rather than a sport, criticizing the ancient practice's commercialization.

A photo of Sangeeta Lerner, who has long bleached-white hair and a nose piercing
Sangeeta Lerner want to bring the concept of awareness back into people's yoga practiceImage: Franz Grünewald

"Something is wrong here," Sangeeta Lerner thought to herself when she walked into a German yoga studio for the first time about a decade ago. Lerner had just moved from India to Berlin and wanted to get back to practicing yoga.

But her thoughts floundered in the Berlin studio: Why is the yoga instructor so fit? Why is the room decorated with a mix of Buddhist and Hindu gods that belong in a temple? And why was there superficial techno music playing during the final relaxation phase known as the shavasana?

"Everything was so sterile and fancy. Everyone had gym clothes on, while I had come in comfy clothes. The yoga teacher walked around the room correcting the asanas (or postures)," Lerner recalls. She was irritated that she felt disconnected from the teacher and the other practitioners, since yoga stands for a sense of community. Lerner thought she was doing something wrong, that she was not flexible enough and that she needed more practice.

Spirituality: Imitated not integrated

Today, ten years later, the 44-year-old knows she's not doing anything wrong, just like the approximately three million Germans who practice yoga regularly. Because it's not about right or wrong — it's about awareness.

Indian women do a yoga pose on a regional train with their hands folded above their heads
Yoga as community: Spontaneous asanas in Mumbai, IndiaImage: Francis Mascarenhas/REUTERS

"Yoga is not a sport, it doesn't matter what kind of body you have. Yoga is healing work — accessible to everyone. And for that, there must be spaces where everyone can feel welcome," Sangeeta Lerner tells DW.

Originating from India, yoga is closely linked to Hindu philosophy and practice. In western societies however, yoga is often taken out of context and commercialized.

Lerner sees this as cultural appropriation. Under British rule yoga was forbidden. Now sacred symbols and practices are unconsciously appropriated and dissociated from their Indian origins.

Yoga, as it is taught in the west, is mostly limited to the physical aspect of asanas or postures. There are also some bizarre forms such as beer yoga, yoga with goats or yoga on a stand-up paddleboard, which often includes the chanting of "om." Western yoga studios mostly mix esoteric ideas, far eastern philosophy and western psychology. Buddha is mixed haphazardly with religious songs of Shakti and Shiva which are Hindu gods.

"I'm not a Buddhist," Lerner explains, "but these spiritual symbols are very meaningful to people in Asia."

She observes how cultures are imitated yet not integrated in western yoga studios. It reminds her more of a kind of art performance. "That's when colonial supremacy comes into play. You take something from a culture and make it work for you."

A large group of people practicing the downward dog yoga pose in Times Square
Downward dog in Times Square, New York on World Yoga Day in the US:Image: Andrew Kelly/REUTERS

From copywriter to yoga teacher

Sangeeta Lerner was born and raised in Mumbai, India. The family didn't have much money, lived in a small apartment, and yet Lerner found her mother in particular to be a happy person. 

"My mother always gave everything. She welcomed everyone to our home and when she was out, she always had cookies for the street dogs. That was yoga for me. Not just physical exercise. My mother was very spiritual without being dogmatic. We all felt how good it was for her to give to others." This feeling, she says, is what she misses in Germany and now wants to pass on herself as a yoga teacher.

Lerner used to work as a copywriter in the advertising industry. Among others, she worked for three years in Bahrain. This is where she met her future German husband, who worked in marketing. "When I gave presentations, the men never gave me credit for my ideas. That's when I realized that as an Indian woman, I have no power in this country."

She had always been someone who fought against social injustices, she says. To deal with all the chaos around her, including discrimination in her own country, she long sought answers in yoga.

Yoga is an Indian practice believed to be about 3,000 years old. The word yoga derives from Sanskrit and broadly means "to unite." It is an interplay of body, mind and breath, combining physical exercises, breathing techniques, meditation and ethical principles. So, it's no surprise to Lerner that yoga has become an export hit. "It just works," she says with a knowing smile. "Anyone who decides to become a yoga teacher isn't doing it to make money or become famous. They've realized it's a powerful practice that brings you closer to your soul." It was also the reason why she turned her back on the advertising industry.

Decolonize yoga

The global yoga industry generates €35 billion (almost $38 billion) from classes, retreats, yoga gear, books, magazines and scented sticks, according to market research firm Allied Market Research.

Yoga in the west is often advertised by predominantly slender, white people. This reinforces stereotypical ideas and excludes people who do not conform to this beauty norm.

Picture of a yoga class at a beach
Yoga in the West is often advertised by predominantly slender, white peopleImage: VisualEyze/picture alliance

Yogini Sangeeta Lerner bought her first yoga mat in Germany. After numerous further training courses, she gathered the courage to offer her own yoga classes. However, not in a yoga studio, but in a family center and in a midwife's practice.

She shows up wearing loose colorful pants and a blouse. Again and again, she directs her attention to the breathing, and asanas happen as if in passing. She keeps the exercises simple without contortions. A meditative state is quickly attained.

Although people worldwide follow the spiritual practice and appreciate it, the Berlin-based yoga teacher is annoyed that it doesn't help to prevent prejudices against Indians.

"I still get the stereotypes of cows in the street or snake charmers," she says. Her two children also have had racist experiences, she says. "India is a big country and we also have many political problems. But instead of talking about it, we keep getting pigeonholed."

To change that, Sangeeta Lerner has been giving Decolonize Yoga workshops throughout Germany for the past two years where they learn how to teach yoga without being culturally appropriative. Both experienced yoga teachers and beginners attend these two-day workshops.

"Are you taking yoga away from us now?" is one of the questions Lerner often hears. "Of course not!" is her answer. As someone who grew up with it, she mainly wants to create awareness of its complexity and pass on its cultural roots.

Indian woman tying her hair behind her head
Berlin based Yoga teacher Sangeeta Image: Rico Schwarzentrub

"We all live in toxic cultures, whether in Germany or India," Lerner says. Her aim is to bring yoga out of the privileged, commercialized environment and into the mainstream. She has already succeeded on a small scale. She is nicknamed the 'Mayor of the Schillerkiez' in her neighborhood, Berlin's Neukölln district, where everyone knows and greets her. There's a sense of community, just like she learned from her mother.

This article was originally written in German.